Washington football player Sean Taylor is dead at the age of 24, shot and killed at home in front of his partner and 18-month-old daughter. Four people have already been arrested, three of them teenagers.
They were expecting to break into the empty house of a wealthy football player. Instead, they panicked, hit Taylor in the leg with a bullet and ran. The bullet tore into his femoral artery and Taylor died the next day.
It’s the kind of senseless, random violence that makes you put your hands on your ears and squeeze your eyes shut until the tears pry loose. The initial reaction here in D.C. has been an avalanche of unbearable sadness. Hundreds of people left flowers, notes and other offerings in front of the team practice facility. Everywhere you looked people were wearing the team colors of burgundy and gold.
I can understand how strange this must seem at a distance. It’s not like there are shortages of people to mourn in the nation’s capital. D.C. is the violent crime mecca of the United States. We lose children who haven’t seen their 10th birthday to stray bullets.
We have the highest HIV rate in the country, recently described as “an epidemic.” We are where the Masters of War crafted the lies that have led to the deaths of one million Iraqis and 3,900 U.S. troops. And yet we ache for Sean Taylor.
But on the ground in D.C., it somehow makes all the sense in the world. Sean Taylor was drafted as a 20-year-old safety with an almost otherworldly ability to play the game he loved.
Over the last four years, the city has seen him evolve from a talented but undisciplined player, to an All-Pro wunderkind. Off the field_in this era of oversaturated sports coverage_we followed his journey closely from “wild child” to adulthood, to fatherhood.
Media illusion or not, we felt we knew Sean Taylor_and have wept for his family and their loss. There is nothing wrong with this. If anything, we’ve borne witness to people’s capacity to reach out and care.
BUT NOT everyone felt the better angels of their nature emerge. Within hours_minutes_of Taylor’s death, a collection of sportswriters tried to turn this tragedy into to a brazenly racist “life lesson.” They speculated that Taylor effectively got what he deserved, the fruits born of a “thug life.”
Never mind that Taylor was the son of a police chief who attended the same private schools as the Florida wing of the Bush family. The narrative of a young Black athlete dying by gunfire was too succulent to resist. The callous copy ran rampant, and this time went beyond Fox Sports Jason Whitlock’s easily dismissible, painfully predictable hot air.
Far more “respectable” voices like the Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon wrote, “It’s sad, yes, but hardly surprising.” Fellow Post columnist Leonard Shapiro had an entire column called, “Taylor Death Is Tragic But Not Surprising.”
They were only two of many to take this tack. It was such a slap in the face to Taylor’s family, friends and all in D.C. who mourned that Washington Times football beat writer John Mitchell broke the typical press box wall of silence and called Shapiro in anger, “a racist conniving dog of a skunk.”
Sports radio was even worse. Examples stained the airwaves, but the repellent Colin Cowherd of ESPN radio incensed a city by saying, “Sean Taylor, a great player has a history of really really bad judgment, really really bad judgment….I’m supposed to believe his judgment got significantly better in two years, from horrible to fantastic?…’Oh, wah wah wah, sensitivity, he’s a great person, wah wah wah.’ Hey, I don’t care, that’s fine, he died.”
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. If Taylor was white, imagine how this story would be played out: “Hero tragically dies defending his family in home invasion.” Instead, we get yet another example of how sports has become an absolute trash receptacle of racism over the past several years: an acceptable place for troglodytic writers and announcers to yip about “hip hop culture” and “thug life,” being the rot at the heart of professional athletics.
Now that the truth has come out about Taylor’s death, there has been a welcome backlash against the “rush to judgment,” with columnists like ESPN’s Jemele Hill writing, “It’s not like Taylor was out at the club, or at the wrong place, wrong time. If the police thought his past troubles were related to his murder, then I understand it.
“But it seems as if this is being framed as, he got what was coming to him, when he’d been trouble-free for some time. Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but I just have a hard time believing that if Brett Favre got shot, there would be grafs about his personal drug abuse issues.”
Hill’s words are welcome. But frankly we should care less if he was in his home, the club, Baghdad, Brooklyn or Brixton. I don’t care if he went to private school, public school or reform school. No one deserves to die before their 25th birthday. And no family deserves to have their son/lover/father slandered in death by reptilian journalists rehashing their own racist rhetoric.
Yes we weep for Sean Taylor, and by doing so we attempt to reclaim all that a cynical media fronting for a brutal system attempt to take away: our capacity to dare to be human.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com